Racial prejudice: Is the mask slipping?

The recent publication of NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey for 2013 appears to show that tolerance and acceptance of others has become rather passé in Britain. People are now bolder and more assertive in openly declaring their prejudices. Since 2000 there has been a significant rise in the number of people who self-report to BSA researchers as being racially prejudiced. Drawing on a sample of 2,149 people, the question asked by BSA researchers since the early 1980s has been: "How would you describe yourself … as very prejudiced against people of other races, a little prejudiced, or not prejudiced at all?" In Scotland, 25% of those asked this question suggested they were either ‘very’ or a ‘little’ prejudiced. This represents a double-digit increase north of the border - the figure was ‘just’ 14% in 2000. Across Britain as a whole, the figure is 30% for 2013, up 5% from 2000.

 

But what does the data tell us? Is an alternative headline not “7 in 10 people admit to having no prejudice at all”? Are we really more or less prejudiced than we used to be? Does ‘being prejudiced against people of other races’ - as the question puts it - actually equate to being racist? Whilst it is true that the language and phrasing of the question is very much a product of the 1980s and attitudes to ‘race’ at that particular moment in history (to be sure, ‘race’ is a problematic social construct whatever the time period) it does seem that we need to have concern and be worried about these latest findings. The world has changed a lot since 1983, when the BSA survey began, but to suggest that the ‘impact’ of racism is ‘diminishing’, as Ellis Cashmore has recently argued on the back of the BSA survey, is just not supported by the evidence, both from the BSA survey and many other data sources.

 

For example, we can look to Police Scotland figures. In 2012-13 there were 4,628 recorded racist incidents in Scotland, this including racially aggravated conduct, breach of the peace and assault. We can also look to racist incidents reported by Scottish schools: in 2011-12 there were over 1,300 racist incidents recorded (with, rather worryingly, more incidents occurring in primary schools than in secondary schools). Whether we want to acknowledge and confront the hard truths or not, racism is happening on our streets, in our schools and in people’s houses – with the majority of aggressors being young white men, aged 16-20, who are out drinking in city centres at the weekend. The data paints a depressing picture of the realities of racism – and it is not, in any tangible sense, ‘diminishing’. Indeed, if you were to suggest this to some of the English, Roma, Asian and African-Caribbean individuals suffering the effects and impact of racism in Scotland you would probably not be easily forgiven.

 

Having said this, yes, the world has changed. Our meanings and understandings of the BSA question have undoubtedly altered over time. ‘Race’ and ‘prejudice’, in particular, are not static words or concepts and they shift, twist and bend to accommodate the times we live in. It’s a post-9/11 and 7/7 world where a seemingly never-ending economic downturn has led to a reinvigorated search for social, economic and political ‘scapegoats’ who are perhaps Muslim, Roma, ‘other’… with many other ethnicities, religions and nationalities under the spotlight. Indeed, the latest anti-European and anti-immigrant turn, with the rise of UKIP at the recent European Elections, has been a significant event that cannot be ignored or downplayed (though note the not-coincidental decline of the BNP at the same elections – have former BNP voters opted for, arguably, a more ‘palatable’ or electable form of racism?).

 

It is interesting to note from the BSA data that the trend over the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s was actually downwards in terms of those self-reporting their racial prejudices and then, over the course of the latter 2000s, the trend has largely been upwards – but slightly less alarming than has been suggested in the press (but there is no room for complacency). Viewed through a geographical lens the data becomes even more fascinating: whilst Scotland experienced a double digit increase in those people willing to admit their prejudices (as did regions such as the North East, Wales and the West Midlands) in inner London there was actually a 20% decrease. Why is this? It may be that UKIP’s Suzanne Evans inadvertently hit the nail on the head when she told Radio 4 after the European Elections that people in London are too ‘educated, cultural and young’ to vote for the party. If ‘state multiculturalism’ is dead, as Angela Merkel and David Cameron asserted back in 2012, then it seems they forgot to inform London of this fact.

 

Whatever ‘spin’ or criticisms of the BSA data you might want to make, it does seem that the ‘liberal hour’ has left us and that the ‘politically correct’ mask of racial tolerance, diversity and acceptance is slipping. In one sense, is this willingness to openly admit to racial prejudice to BSA interviewers at least honest? Does it let us know what we are up against, as anti-racist campaigners and activists? Viewed through another lens, is the data yet another stick to beat the white working class with – indeed, the highest levels of prejudice are to be found among older men who are less well educated and work in less skilled occupations. What does this say about contemporary Britain and the alleged ‘classless’ society we now live in?

 

In closing, it’s important to recognise that we all have prejudices, whether we are conscious of these or willing to publically admit them. Social Psychologists will tell you it is the brain’s way of taking shortcuts in various high-pressure or stressful situations. However, our primary concern needs to be with what happens when prejudicial beliefs are put into actions and then translate into practices. This happens at both the level of the individual as well as within institutions, such as the Police (at least in England and Wales) who have acknowledged institutional racism as a serious problem to be tackled (for example with regard to ‘stop and search’ procedures). Indeed, it is the everyday practices of racism that constitute the real danger and threat, especially when those who are carrying out such practices wield power, influence and legitimacy (such as the ability to hire and fire in the workplace, to pass sentences in courts of law, to make legislation in the Houses of Parliament). The BSA data reminds us we need to be ever vigilant and to be vocal in challenging racism wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.  

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(Professor Clark works at University of the West of Scotland as a Professor of Sociology & Social Policy, based in the School of Social Sciences on the Paisley Campus. He is also a CRER Board Member)

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